Transformation into Christlikeness is Possible: Dallas Willard

DallasWillard-sm

While preparing for a retreat with Eastbrook Church’s student ministry, I came across this excerpt from Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard that hit home to me. Given some of my recent reflections on the nature of pastoral leadership in North America (see “Five Themes of Resilient Ministry” and “Five Steps for Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership“), this section on the gaps and possibilities of Christian formation in our lives, particularly the Christian formation of pastors and leaders, was resoundingly important to me. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

First of all we must be clear that such a transition as is envisioned in Christian spiritual formation can actually happen, and can actually happen to us. This, today, is not obvious.

What we see around us today of the “usual” Christian life could easily make us think that spiritual transformation is simply impossible. It is now common for Christian leaders themselves to complain about how little real-life difference there is between professing, or even actual Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other. Although there is much talk about “changing lives” in Christian circles, the reality is very rare, and certainly much less common than the talk.

The “failures” of prominent Christian leaders themselves, already referred to, might cause us to think genuine spiritual formation in Christlikeness to be impossible for “real human beings.” How is it, exactly, that a man or woman can respectably serve Christ for many years and then morally disintegrate? And the failures that become known are few compared to the ones that remain relatively unknown and are even accepted among Christians.

Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life “blew up,” became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar pattern in both Christian and non-Christian “power structures.” But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?

The same questions arise with reference to lay figures in areas of life such politics, business, entertainment, or education, who show the same failures of character while openly identifying themselves as Christians. It is unpleasant to dwell on such cases, but they must be squarely faced.

Of course the effects of such failures depend on the circumstances, on how widely the failure becomes known, and on various other factors. In another case a pastor became enraged at something a subordinate did during a Sunday morning service. Immediately after the service he found that subordinate and gave him a merciless tongue-lashing. With his lapel mike still on! His diatribe was broadcast over the entire church plant and campus-in all the Sunday school rooms and the parking lot. Soon thereafter he “received the Lord’s call” to another church. But what about the spiritual formation of this leader? Is that the best we can do? And is he not still really like that in his new position?

Malfeasance with money is less acceptable than anger, and sexual misconduct is less tolerated still. But is the inner condition (the heart) all that different in these cases-before God?

The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) “fails” is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they “did it” or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?

Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Life the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.

Without gently though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented and in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.

The Weekend Wanderer: 8 December 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

85262“John the Baptist Points to the Real Hope of Advent” – Fleming Rutledge reflects on how both Advent and John the Baptist are apparently out of touch with the cultural currents that surround Christmas. Connecting with the longing for Jesus to come as Judge, “John does not proclaim Jesus as a captivating infant smiling benevolently at groups of assorted rustics, potentates, and farm animals. Instead, he cries out, ‘He who is coming after me is mightier than I. . . . His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Matt. 3:11–12).” Her entire article is compelling. [Thanks to David Bier for sharing this with me.]

 

brunson22a“‘A living martyr’” – World Magazine names Andrew Brunson as their “Daniel of the year,” following accusations against him in Turkey and his recent release from imprisonment.  “Jailed in October 2016 and subsequently charged with espionage and terrorism, Andrew Brunson found himself catapulted to the center of global headlines and U.S.-Turkey relations. Norine, jailed briefly then released, never left Turkey, knowing she might not be allowed to return to support her husband. Now they were home to family and friends.”

 

Mar Mattai Monastery Iraq“The Vanishing: The plight of Christians in an age of intolerance” – Janine di Giovanni reports on something that many of us have been highlighting for the past few years: the excavation of a persecuted Christian minority from the Middle East. “The Christians here have endured invasions by Persians, Kurds, and Turks, but they have recovered after each persecution. This is, in part, their tradition: they believe in their sacred right to their land. . . . The persecution of Christians in Iraq began as early as the thirteenth century. But in recent years it has reached a tipping point, setting off a mass exodus. In 2002, when I was living in Baghdad, six months before the US invasion, there were nearly 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are between 250,000 and 300,000 left, according to Samuel Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute.” You may also want to read this recent, similar statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury: “Christians on brink of extinction in Middle East, warns Archbishop of Canterbury.”

 

2013_9-16-The-Russian-Orthodox-Church“Israel expropriates almost 70 acres of Catholic Church property” – On a related topic, The Middle East Monitor reports: “Israel’s occupation authorities expropriated almost 70 acres of Palestinian land in the Jordan Valley and West Bank on Tuesday, Shehab news agency has reported. The land is owned by the Roman Catholic Church — the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem — in the villages of Bardala and Tayaseer near the West Bank city of Tubas and in the Jordan Valley respectively.” Is it for security or settlements? Either way, the church just lot its property to the state.

 

A Uyghur woman walks pass a statue of Mao Zedong in the“The Uighurs and China’s Long History of Trouble with Islam” – On a related topic, in The New York Times Review of Books, Ian Johnson offers an extended reflection on Islam in China, with particular attention to the Uighurs in northwest China. He also gives some helpful reflections on why China has struggled to accept Christianity, as well as other religions viewed as subversive.

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 11.36.26 AM“All the presidents at the Bush funeral service together recited this core prayer. Except one.” – There was a little kerfuffle in the Twitter-sphere when people noticed that President Donald Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump did not recite the Apostles Creed after the homily during George H. W. Bush’s funeral at the National Cathedral. Michelle Boorstein offers an even-handed reflection on the history and significance of the Apostles Creed, and also why the Trumps did not recite it during the service. You can also read my article about why we now recite the Apostles Creed when taking communion at Eastbrook Church.

 

pexels-photo-684387“The Dominant Approach to Leadership in the Church and Why Jesus Means to Upend It”Kyuboem Lee over at Missio Alliance: “There’s a reason many pastors feel used and abused—they’ve been living as cogs in the wheels of the Church Industrial Complex (as my friends JR and Dan White say in their book, Church as Movement). What is the remedy? It’s certainly not trying harder to keep the machine going. Jesus said there is a different kingdom—and a different way of governing, or leading. A different theology of power for a different kingdom. And out of it, a different way of structuring ourselves as society or organization or community. The greatest in this society will be the servant of all.”

 

civil war“Battle Lines: Recovering the profound divisions that led to the Civil War” – Numerous people have recommended that I read Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. I haven’t had the chance to get there yet, but a tantalizing appetizer came this past week in Gordon Wood’s in-depth review of both Delbanco’s book and Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding. The review sends you deep into the history of slavery in our country to some profound wrestling with what was really going on.

 

3309“Unknown John Donne manuscript discovered in Suffolk” – This might just be the English-major in me, or it might be the poetry lover in me, but I found this article about a recently discovered manuscript of John Donne’s poetry fascinating. Donne is that well-known 17th-century love poet, who eventually became an Anglican priest and metaphysical poet. “A previously unrecorded handwritten manuscript of John Donne’s poetry has been found in a box at an English country house in Suffolk. Dating back 400 years, the bound collection was kept for at least the last two centuries at Melford Hall in Suffolk.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Shadow-Casting Monsters: Parker Palmer on dealing with our souls, part 3

parker-palmer-header-520x280Bringing my reflections on Parker Palmer’s five ‘shadow-casting monsters’ from his book Let Your Life Speak, I want to bring our attention to the fourth and fifth of that list today.

Shadow-Casting Monsters #4:
4. “Fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life” (89).

Don’t we fear the chaos of things? Having participated in church planting in various forms over the past ten years, as well as also following up a founding pastor of thirty years at an established church, I have experienced many different forms of the chaos of life. Yet, it has also been in the midst of that chaos that I have seen some of the most exciting and creative things occur. What would have happened if we had rejected the new and exciting because of our overwhelming fear of chaos? Nothing. Nothing would have happened. How completely sad. Palmer goes on to say: “The insight we receive on the inner journey is that chaos is the precondition to creativity: as every creation myth has it, life itself emerged from the void” (89).

5. “The denial of death itself” (90).

Here’s two more insights from Palmer on this one:

We also live in denial of the fact that all things must die in due course. (90)

The best leaders in every setting reward people for taking worthwhile risks even if they are likely to fail. These leaders know that the death of an initiative – if it was tested for good reasons – is always a source of new learning. (90)

This fifth shadow-casting monster reflects perhaps one of the most important things I have learned in the past three years. There are life cycles in our lives, in the seasons, in our work, and in ministry leadership. There is a time to live and there is a time to die, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says.

How often we, as leaders, become a stultifying force in our organizations when we fear the natural way of death. I have seen and experienced the waste that happens when an initiative that needs to die is kept alive because of tradition or some sense wrong ownership. It is no longer fruitful. It is no longer risky and life-giving. God forgive us for doing this in the church.

May we be leaders who face the shadow-casting monsters in our lives, organizations, and ministries so that God’s best for us and others is realized as we work with Him, and not against Him.

Shadow-Casting Monsters: Parker Palmer on dealing with our souls, part 2

parker-palmer-header-520x280Continuing my reflections on Parker Palmer’s five ‘shadow-casting monsters’ in the life of a leader from his book Let Your Life Speak, I turn now to numbers three, which is: “‘Functional atheism’, the belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us” (88).

Here’s a bit more from Palmer on this one:

This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God. (88)

What do you think about this one? After working within a few different churches in the evangelical tradition, I’m tempted to wonder if this is one of the most pervasive of Palmer’s monsters in that church tradition at present. I find it in myself, too.

Let me stop to ask some tough questions:

  • do I think I own my leadership tasks more than God does?
  • do I feel the need to shoulder everything on my own, or do I submit myself to God and His ways (‘not my will, but Your will be done’)?
  • am I considering what is mine to do and what is not mine to do, or do I try to do everything?
  • do I even think about God in all of this?

For those who are able to master this monster, Palmer writes these words:

We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able and trust the rest to other hands. (89)

I’d love to hear some feedback and comments on this.

Shadow-Casting Monsters: Parker Palmer on dealing with our souls, part 1

parker-palmer-header-520x280Awhile back, I read through Parker Palmer‘s brief book Let Your Life Speak. This is an outstanding book on life and leadership. Palmer has worked quite a bit with educators and as an advocate for peace in our world today. He comes from a Quaker background.

To set the tone of what he is trying to accomplish in this book, slowly read through the following quotation in the book:

It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. (82)

Immediately after this important statement, Palmer outlines five ‘shadow-casting monsters’ in the life of a leader. I wanted to outline three of those here today, with particular attention to the first one.

Shadow-Casting Monsters #1-2:
1. “Insecurity about identity and worth” (86).
2. “The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests” (87).

In pondering the first of Palmer’s leadership monsters, I was challenged to look into myself. Am I leading out of insecurity or lack of worth? Am I trying to get a sense of value and meaning in my life through those I am leading? Am I controlling or manipulating others in order to create a sense of value in my own self? Our shadow-side stretches out to satisfy our own selves through what we do. This is not true leadership or ministry.

Further in on this first monster, Palmer writes these words that every leader should consider deeply:

These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simply fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves. When a leader is grounded in that knowledge, what happens in the family, the office, the classroom, the hospital can be life-giving for all concerned. (87)

The alternative to such a grounded living? Flipping Palmer’s words on their head, it would be giving death to those around us.